AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday declared a state of “civil emergency” in an effort to minimize the financial impact on state operations of the federal government shutdown.
With the proclamation, LePage has taken the authority to circumvent state laws or rules if he determines they “prevent, hinder and delay effective management of the emergency.”
Meanwhile, the largest union representing state workers called the proclamation an “unnecessary power grab.”
“The failure of leadership in Washington, D.C., has resulted in a federal shutdown, preventing the flow of federal money to Maine,” wrote LePage in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, this means that a large number of our federally funded state employees may have to be laid off. The State of Maine simply cannot fill the financial gap created by the prolonged loss of federal dollars. It would be unlawful for the State to ask our federally funded employees to continue to work without having the authority to pay them.”
Top members of LePage’s staff stressed Wednesday that the governor’s goal is to prevent state employees from losing their jobs. One of the powers given to the governor in a civil emergency is the ability to transfer state personnel to ensure the ability to “cope with the emergency,” according to state law. That could potentially free the governor to ensure that certain government functions handled by laid-off employees continue despite the shutdown.
The power of the purse strings stays with the Legislature during the civil emergency, and lawmakers can repeal the governor’s proclamation by joint resolution.
More than 2,700 state employees are paid, either partially or entirely, with federal funding. Those jobs, as well as federally funded programs and services, have been put in jeopardy by the cutoff of federal revenue during the shutdown.
In a letter to state employees, LePage reiterated that he has been in regular contact with union officials in an effort to find alternatives to layoffs.
“Please know that our administration is working tirelessly to assist our employees and to allow the continuation of programs and services to the citizens of Maine,” he said.
Publicly, LePage and the union had been presenting a united front in the face of limited federal funding, saying Friday they were working together to minimize the effect of the shutdown.
That united front splintered in the wake of LePage’s proclamation, as Maine State Employees Association President Ginette Rivard blasted the governor in a prepared statement, saying the governor was simply seeking to “ignore the laws he finds inconvenient.”
“The governor’s action is unnecessary,” Rivard wrote. “It’s extreme. It’s an overreach of power. It demonstrates the governor’s inability or unwillingness to work with Maine’s legislative leadership, Maine’s congressional delegation and even the rank-and-file state workers who call him their boss.”
Rivard also criticized the governor for laying off more than 50 federally funded DHHS workers on Monday, which she said was unnecessary, even in the face of the government shutdown.
The possibility of a civil emergency proclamation was not raised during comments by Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, who on Wednesday briefed lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee about the shutdown and its effect on that state.
Attorney General Janet Mills said Wednesday evening that her office had not been consulted about LePage’s proclamation.
“The first I saw of this was when it came across the email a few minutes ago,” she said. “I have no idea what he wants to do or intends to do, and his proclamation isn’t clear about that. The purpose of declaring a civil emergency is to allow the governor to suspend the statute.”
LePage will meet with lawmakers Thursday morning. Most legislative leaders on Wednesday urged transparency and cooperation during the length of the civil emergency.
“This action gives the governor significant power to suspend any of the state’s laws,” wrote House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in a news release. “We want him to clearly lay out what he intends to do — which rules, statutes and laws he intends to suspend. We are calling for transparency, accountability and collaboration as we move forward.”
“Actions like this are surprising and unsettling for Mainers,” wrote Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “We look forward to getting more information from the governor and his administration so that together we can assure Mainers that we will all get through these challenging times.”
“I intend to keep in close communication with the governor’s office and Democratic legislative leaders in the coming days so that we can all manage this unfortunate situation in a collaborative and pragmatic manner,” wrote House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
In the past, governors have declared civil emergencies as a result of hazardous weather or as a response to unforeseen economic shocks, such as Gov. John Baldacci’s declaration in 2007 as a result of a price spike in diesel fuel.
BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.